Sicilian coffee dream draws closer as climate crisis disrupts agriculture | Italy


For more than 30 years, the Morettino family have tried to produce their own coffee on a small plot of land in Sicily. And for 30 years, they had failed.

But last spring, 66 plants produced around 30kg of coffee, a development that could make the Italian island the northernmost coffee plantation in the world.

Experts say the climate emergency is irreparably tropicalizing Mediterranean agriculture in Sicily, where in August a monitoring station in the southeastern city of Syracuse took a temperature of 48.8 ° C, the most never recorded in Europe. But for Andrea Morettino, whose family has been in the coffee business for a century, it’s a dream come true.

“In the 90s, after many trips around the world, my father decided to try planting coffee plants in our little garden on the outskirts of Palermo, on land 350 meters above sea level. Usually, coffee plantations grow at around 1,500 meters above sea level, ”Morettino said.

“At first it was a simple experiment, but after hundreds of attempts we started noticing that the coffee beans were increasing in number, until last spring when a bountiful harvest allowed us to process them, to dry them and toast them.

“Do you know what’s even more amazing? ” he added. “Plants grew in the open, without the help of greenhouses or pesticides. Totally organic. For us, this could be a new beginning.

Andrea and Arturo Morettino with their coffee trees in Sicily. Photography: Morettino

In the homeland of espresso and cappuccino, the culture of Made in Italy coffee has always been an obsession. As early as the early 1900s, a group of agronomists from the Palermo Botanical Garden, a research institute at the University of Palermo, tried to grow coffee. The dream was shattered in the winter of 1912 when, due to the particularly low temperatures in that year, the plants died.

“It is clear that the climate emergency and the resulting rise in temperatures played a decisive role in the flowering of coffee plants in Sicily,” said Adriano Cafiso, who has spent the last 15 years roaming the plantations. from South America and Africa and now collaborates with Morettino.

“The problem with growing coffee in Sicily is not the heat but the cold. For this reason, we are already working on a series of greenhouse plantings. The idea is that the so-called daughters or granddaughters of these plants will gradually be able to adapt to the Sicilian climate to the point of even being able to flourish outdoors, as has already happened in the plantation of Palermo. .

The project will take years before it can reach full-scale production, but Morettino is determined to create new coffee plantations on the island.

“Our dream is to create a café 0 km away and introduce coffee production for the first time miles from mainland Europe,” he said. “In recent years, due to climate change, Sicily has evolved into other cultures that seemed unthinkable until a decade ago, and which also force us entrepreneurs to evolve.

Sicily has been for centuries one of the main producers of oranges and lemons, first imported by its Arab conquerors at the beginning of the 9th century. However, in recent years, citrus production has declined considerably: the land used for oranges has decreased by 31% over the past 15 years and that for lemons has fallen by almost half, as summers increasingly. hotter and drier means plants cannot absorb enough water. .

Signs of change had already been felt before the mercury hit 48.8 ° C in August: in the summer of 2020, there was no rain for 90 consecutive days. Data collected by the Balkans and Caucasus Observatory estimated the average temperature increase on the island over the past 50 years at nearly 2 ° C, reaching 3.4 ° C in Messina on the north coast -is.

Scientists say the climate emergency could wipe out traditional agricultural crops from the Mediterranean, leaving producers to search for tropical alternatives. In the past three years, the production of avocados, mangoes and papayas has doubled in Sicily, while in the botanical garden of Palermo, researchers have recorded for the first time the flowering of welwitschia, native to the southern desert. African from Namib.

“There is a very high and imminent risk of desertification on the island, with many historic vines doomed to disappear,” said Christian Mulder, professor of ecology and climate emergency at the University of Catania. “In the long-term worst-case scenario, all of southwestern Sicily will be climatically indistinguishable from Tunisia. This forces farmers to adapt to new crops. This is a process already underway. We must fight to avoid the worst.

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